Ethics in Design

Ethics is a very important topic to understand in design. In the text they state, “being human-centered also ensures that designers are truthful and open in their design practice” (Benyon 25). Good design should be aesthetically pleasing and ethical because it will enable the user to not only enjoy the product but it will ensure that it will not cause any harm. Realistically it’s hard to find design that incorporates both elements. If a designer wants to act in an ethically responsible manner, “it is imperative to put forth personal effort in understanding ethical conflicts rather than trying to follow any predefined safe rules...ethics is a process of learning – not a process of obedience” (mlab). There are many ways designers can learn about ethical practices. For instance the web has thousands of site dedicated to ethical guidelines. These will be discussed later. Its important to start with defining ethics.

Ethics is “a (rational) study of moral dilemmas in (human) action. Morals are shortly defined as codes or guides of conduct (implicit or explicit) that are based on personal long-lasting beliefs and values or those of surrounding society. A personal act can be considered moral, immoral or amoral from the point of view of ethical studies.
Moral - an act or though that is in line with personal and societal moral codes
Immoral - an act or thought that is against personal or societal moral codes
Amoral - an act or thought that does not reflect choice based on moral codes”
It can be noted that virtually any act can be considered moral and immoral. In design there are no right or wrong solutions there are only choices that individuals make on a conscious basis. In a sense its difficult to study ethics as it is seen as a personal taste. What may be right to one person may be wrong to another. Ethical design should not cause harm to anyone or anything. Design should be open and honest.

Ethics vs. Aesthetics

Design is essentially about how aesthetically pleasing it is. Many designers worry that if design is ethical its aesthetics will be compromised. Also, they feel that there are too many limits to what one can do with ethical products. For example, the types of materials that can be used that are more environmentally acceptable are limited. With advancements in technology we now have access to materials that are environmentally friendly and also easy to work with, however they are quite costly. Keep in mind that using more expensive materials will last in the long run because they are more durable. Also accessibility is another issue. In ethical design one needs consider these needs to not only make the design aesthetically pleasing but also accessible to all.

The European Association of Universities and Colleges of Art, Design and Media held a conference called ETHICS 2006: Design, Ethics and Humanism in Nantes, France in June 2006. It focused on products, services the environment and responsibilities of designers. It covered the development of the environment and the inequalities, also it took “stock of existing research as well as the experience accumulated and results achieved in various design fields"(Ethics 2006).

Six sub themes were planned to cover a wide range of concerns:
  • Eco design and sustainable development
  • Design for All and inclusive conception
  • Supportive economy and fair trade
  • De- industrialisation, design and employment
  • Companies and business ethics
  • Ethics and the teaching of design

Conferences like this are an important element in design as they universally set a standard in design. Trends are always emerging and are the major causes for bad ethical decisions in design. As long as designers follow the set guidelines they will successfully design ethical products.


Victoria and Albert Museum examined the restrictions of ethical design. They looked at the Emeco Hudson chair, designed by Philippe Starck. The design is effective because its ethics are just as strong as its aesthetic. “It is made from 85% recycled aluminum, an exceptionally durable material, which can be recycled again at the end of its long life”(Museum). Although the cost of these chairs are very high, it tends to make the end user appreciate the design even more. In the study they noted the Emeco Hudson factory “has good pollution control and its aluminum manufacture process is hydro-powered, both of which significantly reduce the footprint of the product, improving its ethics in turn” (Museum). This chair is successful because it utilizes environmentally friendly materials and is very aesthetically pleasing this is how good design should be.

Ethical Guidelines Websites

As mentioned above here are example ethical guideline websites:

Shel Perkins in her study of Ethics and Social Responsibility has created guidelines for designers to follow in daily business interactions.

  • Respect other designers in fair and open competition
  • Be honest when you are describing your professional experience and competencies
  • Avoid any type of conflict of interest
  • Acquaint yourself with each client’s business and provide honest and impartial advice
  • Maintain the confidentiality of all client information
  • Eliminate any form of hidden compensation or kickback
  • Maintain commitment to the development of innovative work of the highest quality
  • Reject all forms of plagiarism ethics and social responsibility
  • Acknowledge authorship of others who have collaborated with you in creating a design

These guidelines can help reduce misunderstandings and ethical decisions for designers. A successful design should implement all these guidelines and make the work appeal to all.

Works Cited

Benyon, David & Turner, Phil & Turner, Susan. "Designing Interactive Systems." Addison- Wesley pg 25.
Ethics 2006. Thinkcycle
Ethics picture ethics-9651.html
Museum, Victoria and Albert.
Perkins, Shel. "Ethics and Social Responsibility"
Right wrong picture: